Religious Exemption Debate

Religious Exemption Hotly Debated in the White House

Religious Exemption Debate

Religious Exemption is a major topic of debate as White House outlines anti-discrimination policies.

In 2008, Barack Obama asserted that he would implement policy changes restricting the use of religious exemption by groups that receive federal funding to hire and fire employees. Six years later, a coalition of anti-discrimination advocates has decided to take President Obama to task on the issue.

As part of a memo attached to the Violence Against Women Act, signed into law during George W. Bush’s presidency and set to be renewed by the Obama administration, religious groups that receive federal grant money are permitted to claim a religious exemption during the hiring process. Anti-discrimination groups have claimed that this practice violates the civil rights and religious freedoms guaranteed by law, and opens the door for discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals.

On June 10th, individuals and activist groups forming the coalition sent a letter and a signed petition to Attorney General Eric Holder. Some of the groups and people included in the petition were members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Jewish Committee, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, among others. Women’s and LGBT groups have recently joined the coalition as well.

In the letter to Holder, the signatories cited religious exemption from the non-discrimination law as a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which mandates that the government may not establish a religion, commonly recognized as the separation of Church and State. Ian Thompson of the American Civil Liberties Union called the exemptions “taxpayer-funded discrimination.” Thompson went on to say that federally-funded religious organizations “must be required to play by the same rules as every other federal contractor.”

But some religious organizations are not convinced that “guaranteeing religious freedom” is really the goal of these activist groups. While the petitioners claim to wish to protect the traditional liberties written into American law, some Christian groups fear that removing these protective exemptions will result in religious organizations being forced to hire people and support practices that are contrary to their core beliefs. For these believers, removal of these exemptions would be a violation of the 1st amendment.

Tim Wildmon, President of the American Family Association, said that if the exemptions are withdrawn, “religious organizations that contract with the government to provide social services such as adoption assistance, disaster relief, health care navigation, preschool education, drug rehabilitation and prison ministry, would be required to hire homosexuals against their convictions.”

Wildmon also pointed out that religious organizations receiving grant money are required to abide by federal Affirmative Action programs, which establish hiring quotas for “protected groups” such as women and ethnic minorities. Wildmon continued, “If lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals are now considered a ‘protected group,’ then what’s to stop the government from trying to force Christian businesses to actively recruit them as the price of contracting with the federal government?”

The coalition and petition to remove religious exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation comes on the heels of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA), which has been struck down by Congress multiple times over the past few decades. Recently, however, advocates of EDNA seemed to have made some headway: the Act was re-introduced in 2013 and the Senate voted to bring the bill to the floor for a vote for the first time.

In order to secure bipartisan support, however, the EDNA – long pushed by LGBT groups – has included a religious exemption for organizations similar to the Violence Against Women Act. Gay and lesbian advocate groups remain divided on the issue of exemptions in the EDNA. Some are challenging the exemptions as discriminatory, while others are accepting the exemptions as necessary for the Act to get signed into law.

The Justice Department has yet to issue a response to the petition, and the administration’s representatives could not be reached for comment. In the past, government authorities have stated that exemptions for religious organizations will be handled strictly on a “case by case” basis.


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